Ergonomics is the science of designing and using objects in a way that allows people to interact with their environment, often their workplace, most efficiently and safely.
The average American spends nearly 9 hours a day at work,1 and if your work environment is not ergonomically correct, it could lead to pain and injury.
What Types of Injuries Can Ergonomics Help Prevent?
Depending on where you work, injuries related to ergonomics can be caused by:
- Repetitive motions (like typing, using a computer mouse or working on an assembly line)
- Vibration (holding certain tools, such as a jackhammer)
- Overexertion (lifting, pushing, pulling, carrying or throwing)
- Improper lifting
Making up the bulk of these injuries are those related to your musculoskeletal system, which includes your bones, cartilage, muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments. Muscle aches, pains, tension and strains in the neck, upper and lower back and shoulders are common after working in a poorly designed workstation day-in and day-out, as are the following additional musculoskeletal injuries:2
- : Inflammation in areas that cushion your bones, tendons and muscles near your joints, leading to pain in your shoulders, elbows, hips and other joint areas exposed to repetitive motions.
- : Tendon damage in your elbow often caused by overuse and repeated hand and wrist movements including not only playing tennis but also work motions, such as using a screwdriver.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
- : Pain, numbness or weakness in your wrist, fingers and hand often caused by repetitive motions such as typing, using a computer mouse, use of tools, bar code scanning, etc.
- : Pain, inflammation and weakness in tendons that can occur from repeated movements on the job, often occurs in the hand, wrist or forearm.
- : Stiffness, pain and damage to joints caused by overuse and misuse.
- : Inflammation of the tendons in the fingers caused by repetitive movements or maintaining a tight grip too long or frequently. Causes pain with movement or the inability to move fingers smoothly.
Other injuries related to improper ergonomics include:
- Eye problems (eye strain, double vision, decrease in the ability to focus)
- Poor posture
- Hearing damage and stress from excess noise
What makes ergonomic-related injuries particularly dangerous is that they often creep up slowly over time, causing only minimal symptoms at first but gradually becoming more severe and, sometimes, permanent.
This is why it’s important to take a proactive stance about keeping your workspace ergonomically correct, and if you notice any discomfort while working or after leaving work — aches, pains, eyestrain, headaches, muscle fatigue and tension, etc. — take note and make changes, as these are signs that your workspace could be damaging your health.
How to Create an Ergonomically Correct Workspace
It’s easy to sense the danger in using a power tool incorrectly or being exposed to excessive noise from machinery, but what is fast becoming one of the most prevalent job descriptions is also one of the most often overlooked in terms of on-the-job danger: office work.
Sitting at a desk, working on a computer or answering phones can quickly take a toll on your body if you’re not careful. Here are some top tips for safe and healthy office ergonomics:3
You should be able to reach your entire work area (including your phone, computer keyboard, computer mouse, frequently used office supplies, etc.) without having to strain or twist your body.
1. Your chair should be adjusted so your feet are flat on the floor (or resting on a low footrest), your thighs are parallel with the floor (and knees in line with your hips) and arm rests should allow your arms to rest without slouching or hunching up your shoulders.
2. Your lower back should be well supported (if your chair does not provide lumbar support, a pillow can be placed behind the curve in your lower back).
3. The top of your computer monitor should be at or just below eye level. Glare guards can be used to cut down on glare and protect against eyestrain and headaches. The monitor should be directly in front of you about an arm’s length away.
4. Your elbows should be bent between 90 and 120 degrees and should be close to your body. Your shoulders should be relaxed.
5. When typing your wrists should be in a straight, neutral position in line with your forearms (not bent upward). Try to use the least amount of force possible when striking the keys. Documents should be placed at the same height as the computer monitor to minimize head movement and the need to refocus.
6. The telephone should be able to be used with your head upright and your shoulders relaxed, even if you’re doing computer tasks at the same time (such as by using a headset or speakerphone).
7. If your job must be performed standing, you should be provided with a chair or stool so you can sit down at regular intervals. A footrest that allows you to shift your weight and a mat to stand on should also be provided.
Aside from having your workstation set up properly, you can further minimize the risk of injuries by taking frequent breaks. Your body is not meant to stay in one position for long periods of time, so be sure to get up and stretch at least every 20 minutes or so. If possible, alternate periods of computer work with other tasks.
You should also give your eyes a break by looking away from the computer monitor and focusing on an object in the distance regularly.
No matter what type of work you do, your workspace should be a physically and emotionally comfortable environment. You should NOT have to use awkward positions that involve reaching, bending or hunching over for extended periods, or that expose you to poor lighting, excessive noise or highly repetitive tasks without proper breaks and task rotations. Any tools or equipment you use that cause discomfort or strain should be modified.
And remember, it is not normal to leave work feeling aches and pains, muscle tension or fatigue or eyestrain. These are all signs that your work environment could use a makeover.
Your employer can bring in an expert to help you set up your workstation in the most ergonomically correct way possible, but in the meantime you can use the tips above to get started.
1. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey 2009
2. International Labor Organization “Your Health and Safety at Work, Ergonomics”
3. United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, Computer Workstation Checklist